The New Pagans

Chico State religious studies Professor Sarah Pike on her book about Neopaganism

PAGAN PARTY—A group of neo-pagans gather around a ceremonial bonfire.

PAGAN PARTY—A group of neo-pagans gather around a ceremonial bonfire.

Want to make a fall festival and dance skyclad around a bonfire while exotic drums beat out hypnotic rhythms? All you have to do is locate a Samhain festival, an Oct. 31 celebration when, according to Neopagan belief, the boundaries between the worlds of the living and the dead are thinnest.

Don’t know where to find such a festival? Try a bit of “magick": Just light a stick of incense, access your favorite search engine and type in “Neopaganism.”

For grounding, you might want to pick up Sarah M. Pike’s highly readable book, Earthly Bodies, Magical Selves: Contemporary Pagans and the Search for Community (University of California Press). Here’s her firsthand description of a Neopagan festival:

“Soft drum beats and notes from a flute mingled as I walked through the festival field. … Festivalgoers roamed around campsites, gathered at tables covered with books and long, hooded robes for sale. A woman … whose naked body was more than half-covered with tattoos of flowers and dragons smiled at me. … The field was alive with music, conversation … and bodies adorned with costumes and elaborate jewelry.”

Author/teacher Sarah M. Pike and her book.

Pike (no relation), a professor of religious studies at Chico State University, began attending Neopagan festivals in 1992 and during the next seven years gathered material for this study. She recently shared some thoughts on a sunny afternoon in her campus office.

Neopagans, she says, are an eclectic group—college students, housewives, office workers—who draw on their beliefs from myriad resources: druidism, Wicca and ceremonial magic, Santería and more.

Some Neopagans believe that institutionalized, Western-based religions depict sexuality as sinful, perpetrating homophobia and misogyny and causing ecological damage with their emphasis on an afterlife, she writes. Neopagans, on the other hand, want to bring about harmony, heal wounds caused by intolerance, and create healthy communities. While their beliefs may vary widely, most generally follow two tenets: “Do as you will so long as you harm none,” and be aware that your deeds, whether good or evil, will return to you three-fold.

They have profound respect for the earth and want to revive pre-Christian nature religions, Pike says. Some cast fond glances backward at early Celtic culture, and, while little concrete evidence of Celtic beliefs and rituals remains, these blithe spirits simply invent what they need. “Imaginative reconstruction,” Pike calls it.

Pike believes the movement away from mainline churches is a displacement of the sacred onto spaces that once were not thought of as “religious,” and Neopagan festivals provide important cultural and religious sites that exemplify this migration of religious activities out of American temples and churches.

“Attention to these religious sites is essential to an understanding of contemporary issues and future trends in American cultural and religious life,” Pike writes. Neopaganism is a valid new religion, she states, which is still trying to work out some issues that many religions have faced. For example, some members want more structure and others are dead set against it. Should they have paid ministers? What should comprise their program for children?

A current debate peculiar to Neopaganism concerns the noise of all-night drumming. Another relates to nudity and sexual harassment: Does being unclothed signal that a person is sexually available? The answer is a resounding NO! A third discusses appropriate behavior around the ritual fire.

Neopaganism currently numbers some 200,000 members, although an accurate count is difficult to obtain because practitioners may be scattered, solitary or, in some cases, “still in the broom closet.” The movement has suffered from baseless rumors of such dark practices as animal sacrifice, sexual licentiousness and black masses spread by people more informed by Hollywood sensationalism than by fact, Pike says.

In fact, a festival generally includes an open ceremony, workshops, rituals and performances, drumming and dancing around a bonfire, activities that offer experiential intensity but little threat. Except for the nudity, which one Neopagan equates with the innocence of kids skinny-dipping, Pike tells us that attending a Neopagan festival is much like going to a Renaissance Faire.

Consequently, the message Neopagans most want to send to the public is that they do not worship the devil; they are not dangerous, but are ordinary people.

Like you and like me.

So go ahead—light a candle and find a Samhain festival. Just try not to set anything on fire.